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Posts Tagged ‘Peter Graves’

The line between inspiration and plagiarism can be a thin one sometimes. Occasionally one comes across a movie which, shall we say, wears its influences very openly, and the question is – did the makers see another movie and genuinely enjoy it so much they felt compelled to create their own homage to it, regardless of brazen this appeared? Or were they simply just cashing in?

The thing about Bert I Gordon’s 1957 film Beginning of the End is that you sort of want it to be the former even while you find yourself regrettably compelled to conclude it’s the former. This is a film which is virtually a beat-for-beat remake of Them!, the granddaddy of a certain subgenre of 50s monster movies – but on the other hand, director Gordon operated extensively in this same area – this wasn’t his first take on this kind of material, nor his last (he became known as Mr BIG not just for his initials, but for his fondness for making giant monster pictures).

(The poster even looks like a knock-off of the one from Them!.)

The beginning of Beginning of the End opens in time-honoured style with a young couple enjoying the classic 1950s pastime of sitting together in a parked car. You know this is going to end badly for them, for we are not quite yet at the point where young adults are allowed to be the protagonists in this kind of film, and so it proves, for the end of the beginning of Beginning of the End sees something terrible but obscure descend upon them (she screams, helpfully establishing the tone).

After the end of the credits which are at the beginning of Beginning of the End (oh, yes, I can keep this up all night), we are briefly with a cop car which comes across the wreckage of their car, but soon find ourselves with plucky young reporter Audrey (Peggie Castle), who really is the protagonist – for a bit at least. The disappearance of the young couple is soon eclipsed by the fact that a whole town in the vicinity has been flattened and its entire population has vanished. The National Guard has surrounded the location and are trying to keep the whole thing quiet. This naturally involves keeping Audrey well away from the ruined town, which is a bonus for the producers as they don’t have to spend any money on a ruined town set. This kind of consideration weighed quite heavily on the minds of the producers of this film, I suspect.

Audrey, however, has sufficient pluck to keep on investigating, which leads her to the research laboratory of Dr Ed Wainwright (Peter Graves, deploying his usual gift for unwarranted gravitas). Sadly she doesn’t have sufficient pluck to keep Graves from stepping in and assuming the role of lead character at this point, and she rather vanishes into the background from this point on. Despite being an entomologist, Graves is working on solving the problem of feeding the world by growing giant radioactive fruit and veg, with the help of his assistant. His assistant has been rendered a deaf mute by a radiation accident, which may be to create pathos and increase representation, but is more likely because this means they don’t have to pay the actor for a speaking role.

Graves, Castle, and the mute dude head off to investigate a nearby grain silo which was destroyed some time before the town, and are startled, to say the least, when a badly-composited grasshopper the size of a bus rears into view. (The movie tends to use grasshopper and locust interchangeably, but as you can perhaps tell, precise scientific rigour is not Beginning of the End’s strongest suit.) Graves’ assistant is gobbled up by the grasshopper and the other two flee the scene, possibly to call their agents.

Yes, the bugs have been nibbling on the radioactive veg and as a result have turned into insatiable giants, and the local woods are infested with the things, as the National Guard learn to their cost when they investigate. This isn’t the most flattering presentation of the Guard, or at least its leadership, as the plot demands they basically ignore all of Graves’ very sensible warnings and act like idiots throughout. But there is an even more pressing problem than the public image of the National Guard’s command: the giant grasshoppers have eaten everything in sight and are swarming in the direction of Chicago. Are the authorities going to have to drop a nuke on the city, or can Graves come up with a way of dealing with the colossal pests?

So, as noted, another giant bug movie very much in the same vein as Them!. I think Them! is a genuinely great movie, and one positive thing you can say about Beginning of the End is that it does make the virtues of the earlier film much more obvious: it works very hard to be gritty and realistic, has a real sense of looming disaster, and makes good use of decent production values – lots of extras and some relatively good giant ant puppets. Beginning of the End couldn’t actually afford any of these things and so it concludes with Peter Graves firing a tommy gun out of a window at live-action grasshoppers which have been persuaded to sit on a photographic blow-up of a Chicago tower block.

Alarm bells may ring for some viewers when the screenwriting credit (which, lest we forget, comes towards the end of the title sequence at the beginning of Beginning of the End) is given to Fred Freiberger, working with Lester Gorn (his only venture into screenwriting). Fred Freiberger has a notorious reputation as the man who was on the scene when Star Trek, Space: 1999 and The Six Million Dollar Man all got cancelled; he once favourably compared being a prisoner in a Nazi prison camp to having to deal with incensed Trekkies. (We have discussed his special screenwriting talents before.) This time, however – well, the script doesn’t exactly shine, but neither is it completely terrible.

If the script has a problem it’s that it calls for the giant grasshoppers to do all sorts of things the special effects department is just totally incapable of realising. They can just about manage a moment where a grasshopper rears into view from behind a low obstruction in the foreground; when they have to start attacking buildings or chasing people through woods, disaster looms, and not in the way the script wants: ropey back-projection battles obvious stock footage to a standstill. It is this which launches Beginning of the End into the realms of camp and is responsible for its dismal reputation.

I have to say, though, that I found it pretty watchable on the whole: it’s formulaic from start to finish (or perhaps that should be from beginning to end), and not especially well-made in any department, but there’s something oddly comforting and enjoyable about it. Graves in particular is obviously taking it very seriously and, largely as a result, the movie has a sort of kitsch grandeur to it which I found very entertaining. A bad movie, but not quite a total waste of time.

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I was catching up with my sister over the Christmas break and, as usual given the lack of anything else we have in common, we ended up talking about what films we’d enjoyed in 2011. I mentioned Never Let Me Go, as you would, and said I thought it was the best SF movie of the year – perhaps for many years.

Never Let Me Go‘s not SF,’ said Spea.

‘Yes it is. Why is it not SF?’ I asked.

‘Well, SF movies are set in the future and happen on other planets.’

‘What about E.T.?’

‘Well, that’s got a spaceship in it.’

Terminator?’

‘Killer robot and a time machine.’

‘So, for a movie to be SF it’s got to be set in the future, or on another planet, or have a spaceship, a robot, or a time machine?’

‘Basically, yes. Does Never Let Me Go have any of those things in it?’

‘No.’

‘Well, then.’

‘It’s got clones in it though.’

However, by this point I think Spea’s mind was elsewhere: having two children under the age of four about the house appears to interfere somewhat with properly rigorous genre analysis. Nevertheless, what does and doesn’t count as SF has been a historically vexed question – even the editors of the superlative Encyclopedia of SF can’t quite manage to come up with a sufficiently comprehensive yet non-equivocal definition. In particular, the fringes of the genre are extremely porous – if a novel set 100 years in the future is SF, why not one only five years hence?

When it comes to movies, things are, if anything, even less clear. Most people have a fairly well-defined idea of what an SF movie looks and sounds like – usually something brash, possibly garish, either intellectually vapid or deeply pessimistic, frequently containing horror elements, and somehow quintessentially cinematic in that it is a fundamentally visual piece of art. This is another way of saying that many SF films stand or fall by the quality of their visual effects – and that being FX-heavy is almost the sine qua non of the genre.

SF movies without an element of the visually spectacular or innovative – or, to put it another way, much in the way of special effects – are an interesting subgenre. Many of these float around the fringes and aren’t usually described as such (as happened with Never Let Me Go, probably on purpose, but also with films like War Games), while others are relatively obscure – the British movie Seven Days to Noon, for example.

I was recently pointed towards the 1952 movie Red Planet Mars by a friend who promised I would love it. This turned out to be utterly untrue in the sense of me actually liking the thing, but nevertheless this movie (obscure in the UK for reasons which will no doubt become apparent) is fascinating: partly because it’s so deeply weird, but also because there’s a sense in which it’s a purer piece of genuine SF than many other much more celebrated 50s SF films.

‘This is a story not yet told,’ drawls the narrator – which is just as well, given the movie’s only just started at the time. (‘This is a story already half-way through,’ would not work so well as an engaging opening line, I suspect.) The narration is actually admirably concise and restrained compared to the melodramatic and/or quasi-religious excesses to be found in other movies, but the movie soon makes up for that as we meet radio astronomer Chris Cronyn (Peter Graves, long before his tape player started exploding) and his wife Linda (Andrea King). Chris and Linda are visiting some scientist friends who share their interests in Mars and painfully clunky expository dialogue. The other scientists have photos of Mars which suggest an advanced civilisation exists on the planet. This is of great interest to Chris as he has spent years, with Linda’s help, building a highly-advanced transmitter to contact the planet.

This must have been a trying undertaking for Chris as Linda soon reveals herself to be an obsessive doom-mongering pessimist, much given to bleak predictions about the impending death of the world, and going on about the diet of fear she and every other woman in the world is forced to live on. How exactly did these two get together? He is a brilliant scientist who lives for his work, while she appears to be a psychotic anti-intellectual maniac – if Chris succeeds in his ambition of contacting the Martians, says Linda, he’ll be the next to advance science, ‘and maybe us – INTO OBLIVION!!!‘ All I can assume is that Linda must be a really good cook.

Maybe they’re just keeping it up for the sake of the kids. Chris and Linda’s sons pop up repeatedly throughout the movie and are clearly meant to be loveable all-American scamps, paragons of wholesome boyhood. Needless to say I found them creepy and irritating, and the scenes extolling the virtues of traditional American family life and values more than a little stomach-churning. Never mind laying it on with a trowel: Red Planet Mars gets to work with a fleet of JCBs.

Oh well. Things become a little more engaging when the scene changes to a hut high in the Andes where we meet Franz Calder (played by Herbert Berghof, who gives the closest thing to an acting performance of anyone in the movie). Calder is a disgraced ex-Nazi scientist who invented the transmitter Chris is using; at the behest of his Soviet paymasters Calder is trying the same thing. Pausing only to scoff at a nearby statue of Christ – ooh, those Russians! – the Soviets depart leaving everyone to get on with the plot.

Chris succeeds in contacting Mars, but initially struggles to find a basis for communication with this alien society. Okay, so it’s not very sophisticated, but it’s a world away from movies like This Island Earth where everyone on Metaluna speaks fluent English. Rather predictably, despite the presence in the room of a brilliant scientist and a decorated cryptographer, it’s one of the junior Cronyns who cracks the problem, which I suppose wipes out any credit the film earned for itself on this score.

Never mind, the movie continues in idiosyncratic style as communications are established between Earth and Mars. The social and cultural implications of alien contact are a vanishingly rare theme in SF cinema and Red Planet Mars instantly becomes interesting, even though it tackles the topic in a crushingly simplistic fashion. The signals from Mars have a devastating effect on western civilisation, especially its economy: news that fossil fuels have been abandoned causes the mining industry to collapse, while suggestions of improvements in agriculture have a similar effect on farmers. What lets the film down is the perfunctory way this is handled – no-one on Earth actually has the slightest idea how the Martians generate their power, but being informed of the very fact they do it differently is enough to cause Earth people to abandon their existing system. (Then again, this is quite a short film.)

However, a movie that looked to be quite unusual and thoughtful goes – frankly speaking – completely off the deep end as the real secret of Martian success is revealed: the Martians have all found God, and are mildly critical of Earthlings for ignoring the message imparted to them by the Almighty two thousand years previously. Not content with causing a massive international depression, the Martians now start a global religious revival – ‘Take them curlers outta your hair, we’re going to church,’ one minor character orders his wife – which leads to… ah, I’m on the verge of spoiling the rest of the plot.

Needless to say, Linda, who has been banging on throughout about the awful dangers of communicating with Mars, now performs an astounding feat of hypocrisy and starts telling anyone who’ll listen how wonderful all of this is. Chris, on the other hand, initially resists the release of the good news from Mars to the public, on the grounds that it doesn’t make sense. (With you all the way, Chris.) Come the climax of the movie, of course, they have reconciled their differences, agreeing that talking to other planets is indeed a good idea, as long as it allows God to get on the airwaves like some ineffable ham radio operator.

The final permutations of the plot reveal Red Planet Mars to be – in some ways – the dark, homuncular twin of Watchmen, and really destroy any aspirations it may have been to be taken seriously as a piece of genuine SF. This movie is often written off simply as a propaganda film, and to some extent it is – but while the Soviet machine is routinely demonised, this isn’t really anti-Communist propaganda, but pro-Christian.

Lip service is paid to the idea that other religions are benefitting from the spiritual revival just as much as the Church, but there’s precious little evidence of that on screen. It’s not just that the Martians are believers, they’re actually Christians, and this is depicted as being part and parcel of their status as a superior civilisation. By extension, the God-fearing Americans are better than the heathen Soviets – Christianity, conservative moral values, and the American nuclear family are not just equated but presented as being virtually indistinguishable.

To say that this is not done subtly is a major understatement. Even if you agree with Red Planet Mars‘ strident views on politics and religion – and I suspect that there are many in America even today who do – you would probably find the film embarrassingly hokey and primitive to watch. To hell-bound observers such as myself, it often borders on the laughably crude. Most of the film takes place on the same five or six small sets, and the only special effects sequence, depicting an avalanche, strongly resembles someone pushing over a pile of soap flakes. Director Harry Horner can do little to overcome the story’s origins as a stage play, given the obviously low-budget nature of proceedings.

Some 50s SF movies have withstood the passage of time better than others, with a few having become acknowledged classics. Red Planet Mars is nowhere near such distinguished company. It’s not just that the cramped and talky production isn’t that entertaining – it’s that this film was never really designed to entertain in the first place. It is, to be honest, simply a lengthy and melodramatic tract, concerned with singing the dubious praises of a very American kind of religion. The fact that it does touch upon some genuinely interesting SF ideas along the way is ultimately irrelevant – but the scenes in question are one more reason to watch a movie the very bizarreness of which makes it oddly watchable.

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